When And Why Should You Use Back-Channel Negotiations?

If you decided to engage in back-channel negotiations, you need to anticipate the risks
If you decided to engage in back-channel negotiations, you need to anticipate the risks
Image Credit: John E. Branch Jr.

In the world of negotiations, one of the most important things that we can do is to be clear. We want the other side to understand what we are asking them for. We also want to make sure where we stand on the issues. However, there will be times that despite the negotiation styles and negotiating techniques that we are using, we run into issues in a negotiation that we might not want to advertise to either the other side or to the world. In cases like this, back-channel negotiations can provide temporary protection from deal spoilers and too much public scrutiny.

Back-Channel Negotiations Give You Another Path To Success

Most negotiators know that back-channel negotiations have been used in numerous conflicts across the globe, including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from 1994 to 1996 and the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979–1980. A good example of the power of back-channel negotiations was in 1985, the imprisoned Nelson Mandela conducted back-channel negotiations with South Africa’s minister of justice that laid the groundwork for the end of the apartheid era. It is true that back-channel talks are most commonly used in diplomacy, but they can also occur in the private sector as well, as when businesses want to negotiate highly visible disputes out of the public eye.

The primary benefit of back-channel negotiations for negotiators is that they remove talks from the scrutiny of an audience, including constituents, the press, and even members of one’s own negotiating team. When a negotiator feels pressured by observers to take a hard line position, he may fall back on counterproductive aggressive tactics and avoid exploring possible concessions and tradeoffs. However, negotiating through a back channel enables would-be dealmakers to test the waters – to determine whether the other party is capable of negotiating in good faith – before exploring real commitments. This means that back-channel negotiations can be particularly appealing to high-level negotiators who are fearful of a public failure if their efforts to reach a deal collapse.

Back-channel talks can also help negotiators circumvent potential deal spoilers. When particular stakeholders have an interest in undermining the negotiators ability to reach an agreement, taking talks “underground,” at least temporarily, can give negotiators much-needed cover to search for collaborative solutions. With luck, they may be able to reach breakthrough agreements before spoilers have had a chance to mobilize in opposition to them.

How To Use Back-Channel Negotiations

During a negotiation, back channels also help parties circumvent the need to meet preconditions to negotiating. In the world of politics, front-channel talks between Palestinian and Israeli leaders have often been nonstarters because one or both sides have insisted that certain conditions be met before they will sit down at the negotiating table. This has caused the two sides to turn to back-channel negotiations to keep lines of communication open even when they aren’t officially supposed to be talking to each other.

The benefits of back-channel negotiations also highlight some of the potential risks that come along with it. First, negotiators may come to feel so protected by the secretive nature of back-channel negotiations that they choose to go undercover repeatedly and stay there for as long as possible. Because most negotiations must eventually go public in order to be implemented, back-channel negotiating may foster costly delays and perpetuate the very sort of impasse they are designed to overcome. Second, back-channel negotiations can provide only temporary protection from deal spoilers and public scrutiny. Indeed, your critics may react even more strongly against an agreement if they believe a process was unfair.

When we weigh the pros and cons of back-channel negotiations we can concludes that secret negotiations can facilitate early breakthrough agreements but yield diminishing returns when relied on too frequently. Ultimately, the goal of negotiators should be to build consensus among their supporters and their detractors. Though back-channel negotiations can be a useful means of jump-starting stalled talks, negotiators should aim to bring their discussions out of the shadows and into the light of day as soon as possible.

What All Of This Means For You

In the world of negotiating, we are always looking for ways that we can reach a deal with the other side of the table. There will be negotiations that we find ourselves involved in in which we would prefer the negotiations to be conducted in private and not advertised to the world. When we run into a situation like this, we have the option of using back-channel negotiations to get what we need. We just need to know how to go about using back-channels.

The power of a back-channel is that it provides you with another path that may lead you to the deal that you are seeking. This allows you to take your negotiations out of the public eye and see if you can make some progress on them in private. Using a back-channel allows a negotiator to bypass any pre-conditions to negotiations be met. There are risks that come along with using a back-channel for negotiations. Delays and impasses may come about simply because you are using a back-channel. Additionally, all back-channel negotiations have to eventually become public.

Every negotiator wants to have more tools in their toolbox so that they can have a better chance of reaching a deal during their next principled negotiation. Back-channel negotiations provide negotiators with a way to conduct negotiations out of sight and boosts their possibility of finding a way to reach a deal. The next time that you are in a negotiation and you find yourself stuck or facing too much pubic scrutiny, consider using a back-channel to keep things moving along.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Negotiating Skills™

Question For You: What steps can you take to make bringing a back-channel negotiation public less of a big deal?

Click here to get automatic updates when The Accidental Negotiator Blog is updated.
P.S.: Free subscriptions to The Accidental Negotiator Newsletter are now available. Learn what you need to know to do the job. Subscribe now: Click Here!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

As negotiators we all know that there are many different ways to reach an agreement with the other side of the table. We’d all like to be able to use our negotiation styles and negotiating techniques come to a negotiated agreement with them. However, failing that we always have a court case that we can fall back on. However, that is an expensive and messy way to accomplish things. What we’d all like to do is to find a better way to get to where we want to get to.

Leave a Comment